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Sunday 11 December 2016

Unearthing the hidden gems in a must-see part of Britain

Exotic gardens and frozen-in-time life ooze Cornish magnificence

Joe Barry

Published 01/06/2010 | 05:00

Mention Cornwall or Devon and immediately one conjures up images of tiny, picture-book hamlets and idyllic rural scenery. Cornwall, in particular, has now become famous worldwide as a picturesque county of seaside villages and winding country lanes, and this is certainly true if you visit there today. Celebrity chef Rick Stein has drawn thousands to the area in search of the tranquil and rich lifestyle that his cookery programmes portray.

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This comes at a cost of course, and residents of the lovely coastal town of Padstow, where Stein has several restaurants, are, during the summer months, reduced to enduring constant traffic jams as tourists arrive in their hordes. The same can be said for much of Devon, for there is nothing the British like better than to visit the evidence of their ancestral past, especially if kept frozen in time, perpetuating a myth of happy, simple country folk living in a sort of vast theme park.

All along the southwest peninsula of Britain there is an extraordinary mix of forbidding moorland, dramatic coastline and enticing beaches. But heading there in high summer is definitely only for those who enjoy lengthy queuing.

In the past, the tin mines of Cornwall were a source of great wealth, and fortunes were made from the 17th century onwards by the entrepreneurs who exploited them.

Many of the families who amassed fortunes then built huge houses in the time-honoured fashion of the new rich the world over. To their credit they also created wonderful gardens, taking advantage of the benign southern climate and, using their new-found wealth, sent their gardeners to five continents to bring home exotic plants and trees.

Having always wanted to see these famous gardens, I recently took a ferry from Rosslare to Pembroke and drove south, pausing on the way through Exmoor. This gave me a great view of perfectly preserved village life with wonderful hills, valleys and moorland, and medieval buildings housing shops and restaurants selling the inevitable Devon cream teas and Cornish pasties.

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Maybe I sound a bit cynical here but signs that advertise 'Ye Olde Shoppe' make me grind my teeth in anguish, just as do our own attempts to flog images of the 'Oirish' to tourists. Shillelaghs and leprechauns may be fine but honestly, do they represent anything of life in Ireland today? I am sure many of the Brits feel the same but then maybe, like us, they just enjoy extracting lots of money from American tourists.

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However, the gardens were well worth the trip, as was the seaside fishing village I stayed in, which had everything one could ask for when on holiday. Imagine a pretty coastal village with a small hotel, no through traffic (the road ended at the harbour), no mobile phone reception and a great pub. Total peace was guaranteed. The local beer was good, no one could phone me and it was too early in the year for the bus loads of tourists.

Most of the gardens were within an hour's drive and were at their showiest in mid-May. Acres of Camellias and Rhododendrons in full flower bordered lakes and waterfalls with numerous woodland walks through exotic champion trees. There were stunning views of valleys and coastline and even the weather was nice.

Two places stand out as special. The first was Trewithen where I had arranged to meet up with a group from the British Woodland Heritage charity, many of whom I knew already through a shared interest in woodland and wood crafts. The head gardener then took us on a tour through the results of centuries of plant collecting, proudly showing us specimens his predecessors had gathered from the 1700s onwards.

The other outstanding place to visit in Cornwall is the Eden Project. If you haven't already heard about it check it out on www.edenproject.com. I would need this entire newspaper to even begin to properly describe it but, suffice to say, it has no equal -- anywhere.

On arriving home a week later, however, I realised I was close to suffering from an overdose of colour, scent and English heritage. The soft greens of Co Meath were like a gentle and soothing relief and they restored my belief that Ireland, with our wild hedgerows and untrimmed landscapes, our lovely coast and great gardens, is probably the best holiday destination in the world.

Irish Independent



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